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  • Writer's picturechasmccabe

What Exactly is a Parks nonprofit? (Part 1)

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

(St. Charles Place Park, Five Points, Denver, Colorado)

When you work in parks, you eventually hear about public/private partnerships. Like anything else, they even have an acronym - PPPs - which is also an acronym in at least five other industries. So, I don't use that term. Instead, I refer to these partnerships as parks nonprofits. (Ok, that's a mouthful, but I haven't found a better way to describe it.)

So, acronyms or terms aside, what is a parks nonprofit? Glad you asked!

(or at least clicked on this post...)

As I mentioned in a previous post about park funding, there are over 230 parks nonprofits operating in the 100 largest cities in the United States. Most are pretty small and are a labor of love of parks for people who work for them, volunteer for them in some capacity, or help support them, largely through individual donations or via foundations or other grant making organizations. Those 230 organizations contribute about 7 percent of the total public park spending in the 100 largest cities in a given year. There are seven major types of organizations and I thought it would be helpful to define each, give some examples and more. This will take a few posts, so I'll start with the first three types:

- Friends of Park name

- Parks Foundation or Parks Conservancy

- City-wide parks foundation

Most parks nonprofits start as Friends of Park name. This is usually an informal coalition of volunteers who want to improve the state of a public park through advocacy. Often they meet with public park agency staff and find out how they can get involved. Volunteer workdays to clean-up the park and perform simple repairs is one approach. Contacting political leaders in your town or city is another. The bottom line is that there's a small group of volunteers advocating for the benefit of a public space. They may be following a process laid out by the public parks agency or they may be striking out on their own, but the effort is organic and generally well intended.

Friends of parks groups may decide that they need to grow to tackle bigger projects, such as rebuilding or adding an amenity like a playground, a trail or sports court or playing field. Often they want to raise funds to help pay for such improvements. There are two ways that they can do so.

One would be to establish a nonprofit organization, which involves incorporating with the Secretary of State in your home state and then filing the appropriate paperwork with the IRS. Generally, this involves attorneys, establishing officers and a board of directors. We must file annual reports, including some form of an IRS return (the forms nonprofits file are called Form 990s) and perhaps an audit, which requires an outside accountant to review financial records for the prior fiscal year and perform a number of checks in order to write an official report.

These stand-alone parks nonprofits are called either a parks foundation or parks conservancy. The first and still most well known the Central Park Conservancy. Conservancy was a name coined by the first president (and first Central Park Administrator) Elizabeth Barlow Rogers and has been adopted by many other parks nonprofits focused on a specific park or collection of parks. A few examples of parks foundations / conservancies from different U.S. cities include the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, Forest Park Forever, Hermann Park Conservancy, and Centennial Park Conservancy, among many others.

The other way to tackle bigger park projects is to work with an existing nonprofit, like a community foundation (which help philanthropic efforts in a given city or larger community) or seek the help of a city-wide parks foundation. City-wide parks foundations work to advocate for the parks system of an entire community, working with the public agencies responsible, working to obtain more funding, both public and private, for parks across a community. They offer support for Friends of parks groups, including funding, volunteers, technical advice, training and more. A few examples of city-wide parks foundations are the Austin Parks Foundation, Park Pride, the Seattle Parks Foundation, the Portland Parks Foundation and the Denver Park Trust.

Both parks foundations/parks conservancy and city-wide parks foundations have more formal working relationships with their respective city parks and recreation agencies. These can range from annual agreements to multi-year formal Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) to formal lease or right of use agreements. It depends on the city, the organizations and the type of collaboration that is taking place. But, the key is that it is a partnership, a collaboration between public and nonprofit organizations for the benefit of a public park and the people that use them.

In future posts, we'll explore more about these types of organizations and examples of what they do and don't do. Further, we'll also cover some other types of parks related nonprofits, including business improvement districts (and affiliated parks conservancies), community development corporations, park development corporations and public benefit corporations, among others.

(For full disclosure, I've worked for a number of the organizations I've mentioned above, as an employee, consultant or as a volunteer.)

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